Review: Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Marking the centenary of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end, Proud Haddock’s excellent revival of Billy Bishop Goes to War is a fitting tribute to all those who risked – and in many cases, gave – their lives in combat. The show tells the remarkable true story of WWI pilot Billy Bishop, who was credited as the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war with 72 victories to his name. But don’t be fooled; despite first appearances, some very jolly tunes and the show’s Enid Blyton-esque title, as the evening goes on there’s a mounting sense of anger and dismay at the utter pointlessness and waste of both this particular conflict, and war in general.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

It all begins cheerfully enough; 20-year-old Billy Bishop enlists in 1914 and leaves his home in Owen Sound, Ontario, eager to have a laugh and kill some Germans. A year later, he joins the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, and helped along by the patronage of London socialite Lady St Helier, a year after that he trains as a pilot and takes triumphantly to the skies, machine gun in hand. But though Billy’s skill and courage earn him medals, promotions and international acclaim, after a while the thrill of shooting down the enemy – however successfully – can no longer quite compensate for the loss of countless friends, the longing for home, or the dawning realisation that the lives he’s taking might be more than just numbers on a scoreboard.

The two-hander, directed by Jimmy Walters, is performed brilliantly by Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish, who play the younger and older Billy, and who complement each other perfectly. Aitken takes centre stage (and beyond) as the charismatic young pilot, quickly establishing a rapport with the audience and unafraid to bear his soul in the play’s darker moments. Beamish, meanwhile, is a steadier, more reflective presence, who keeps out of the way and spends the majority of the play tucked quietly behind a piano.

Both men also play a number of other parts, often to hilarious effect: among them Billy’s patron Lady St Helier, her snooty butler Cedric, and the various officers and dignitaries who have no qualms about placing their men in harm’s way, or using them as figureheads when the occasion suits. It’s at these moments that we’re reminded most forcibly that Billy – like so many others – was not a British soldier, but a Canadian dragged into another nation’s war, only to be manipulated shamelessly by those who considered themselves superior but who weren’t willing to step up and pay the price they expected of others.

Just as the actors show us two sides of the same man, so Daisy Blower’s set cleverly toes the line between a WWI bunker and a 1950s man-cave, so that like Billy himself, we feel we’re simultaneously in two different time zones. The level of detail in the set is astonishing and the overall effect – enhanced further by light (Arnim Friess) and sound design (Dinah Mullen) – is visually stunning, with so much to look at that it almost feels more than one visit is needed to take it all in.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most popular play in Canadian theatrical history, and it’s not hard to see why. The show certainly doesn’t glorify war, but it does celebrate heroism, in particular that of a young man willing to risk everything for someone else’s country. Despite all that he did for us, few Brits in 2018 have even heard of Billy Bishop – and for that reason alone, the play deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Fortunately, the quality of the production more than lives up to the importance of the story it’s telling; beautifully performed, designed and directed, this timely revival is a must-see.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th November.

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Interview: Ross McGregor, The White Rose

Arrows & Traps have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with over the last few years with their unique and exciting adaptations of classic works of literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. But next week marks a new chapter for the company, as they present The White Rose, the first original play written by Arrows founder and artistic director Ross McGregor.

The White Rose tells the true account of the life of Sophie Scholl, a young student in Hitler’s Germany, who, with her brother Hans, forms a group of intellectual freedom fighters – calling themselves The White Rose,” explains Ross. “Together they lead the only major act of civil disobedience to the Third Reich. They have serious objections to what their government is doing during the war, particularly in Russia and Poland, and decide to voice their opinions in a series of leaflets that they write and distribute covertly all across Germany. Their resistance to the regime, although pacifist and passive in nature, causes major shockwaves all across the country, just at the point in 1943 when the war is turning in the Allies’ favour. It’s the story of a small group of young people standing up to the greatest act of brutality that modern history has ever seen.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

Ross first heard Sophie’s story earlier this year on a podcast called ‘The women who changed history but were ultimately forgotten by it’, and realised that here in Britain, we know very little about her. “I don’t think the story is that well-known, at least not in England, and this production seeks, in a very small way, to rectify that. In Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl are national heroes, with over 190 schools named in their honour, streets, town squares, foundations, museums – one of the group was even made a saint. In a recent poll on German television, German citizens were asked to vote for their Greatest German. Sophie and Hans came fourth. They beat Einstein, Bach and Beethoven. I felt this was a female-led story that needed to be told – and with the world as it is currently, and how those in power are treating the weak and vulnerable, it seemed incredibly topical.”

In light of recent news headlines (and the arrival of a certain U.S. president in London), the story of The White Rose feels even more frighteningly relevant. “You would hope that the horrors of the Third Reich were behind us, but you only have to turn on the news to see the latest updates on the concentration camps in America – land of the free,” says Ross. “Concentration camps are defined as a location where individuals are detained against their will indefinitely without trial, and that is exactly what the Trump administration is currently doing. Children are being separated from their parents, and specific minorities are being targeted as enemies of the state, being compared to criminals without a crime actually being committed. Our future lies in the voices of the next generation, and the principles that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose stood for are as valid and vital today as they were in 1943.”

The White Rose marks the next step in the Arrows journey, which began back in 2014 with Much Ado About Nothing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. “Since 2016, our last Shakespeare show, we’ve been moving towards more modern work – mainly because we’ve done so many Shakespeare plays, and he’s not writing any more so we’re running out of material,” says Ross, who’s directed all twelve Arrows productions to date. “I have a deep love of Russian literature, and so that was our focus to begin with, with Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. As we moved forward, I began writing the shows, beginning with a Frankenstein that served also as a biopic of Mary Shelley herself, and an entirely new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted from the original Russian and a literal translation. After some success in the format, I felt it was time to do an original piece, without the comfort blanket of it being an adaptation, and Sophie’s story completely gripped me.

“When I was writing The White Rose there was an increased level of freedom, as the play has never been performed before, and you don’t have any ghosts of previous performances to exorcise or measure up to, but the writing of the script took a huge amount of research, which was a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing process. What quickly became clear was that all of the characters in the play could have had a play written about them, the source material was that rich, so it became more about working out what the focus was, and pairing the original story down into a theatrical form. Decide the story you want to tell, and try to tell it as cleanly and clearly as possible. It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a rich and detailed piece of history.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

While adapting works of literature carries with it an obligation to honour both the source text and those who know and love it, Ross argues that telling a story based on real historical figures is an even greater responsibility: “With our previous work in adaptations, we tried to serve the fanbase of the original novels, whilst still infusing each piece with something original and modern, but with The White Rose we’re dealing with a true story, involving real people, real crimes, real deaths, and several members of the story are still alive today. There was an immense responsibility to stay true to the actual events that took place 75 years ago, to the extent that the script uses verbatim pieces of text from diaries, court transcripts, first person accounts and interrogation documents. The story was unbelievably brave, heartbreaking and inspiring just as it was, without any embellishment, and I wanted to honour the sacrifice this incredible group of young people made.”

Regular Arrows fans will recognise many familiar faces in the cast of The White Rose, which opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio. “With this being such a special show, filled with such rich and nuanced characters, I wanted a cast that represented the best of what Arrows & Traps had to offer. Eight of the nine members of the cast are returning members to the company, and it filled me with such joy to cast them before the script was written, as it allowed me to write for the actors, and cultivate roles that I knew would challenge them, as well as play to their strengths.  I think a large part of the enjoyment of coming to see an Arrows show, as we’re a rep company, is to watch familiar faces in contrasting roles, and appreciate how that ensemble dynamic changes and shifts across the different texts we tackle. 

“We have our resident Movement Director Will Pinchin, who was an Off West End Award finalist for his portrayal of the Creature in our recent Frankenstein, returning as Hans Scholl. We have Off West End Award Best Actor nominee Christopher Tester (Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein) as Gestapo Interrogator Robert Mohr, Pearce Sampson (Macbeth, Gospel According to Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night, Three Sisters) returning as the heartbreakingly tragic Christoph Probst,  Conor Moss (Three Sisters) as the blisteringly funny Alexander Schmorell, Freddie Cambanakis (Three Sisters) as the dashing heartthrob Fritz Hartnagel, Beatrice Vincent (Frankenstein) as the powerhouse Traute Lafrenz, Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Gospel According To Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night) returning as moral compass Willi Graf, and of course Cornelia Baumann (Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Frankenstein, Three Sisters) playing Sophie’s cellmate Else Gebel. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure it would be an Arrows show if Cornelia wasn’t in it, she’s the heart of the company, and the best actress I’ve ever worked with. 

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

“And lastly, but of course by no means least, we have the wonderful talent of Lucy Ioannou in the title role of Sophie Scholl. Although Lucy is new to the company, she has blown me away in rehearsal with her dedication to the role – she’s incredibly talented and an absolute joy to direct. For me, three weeks into rehearsal, she is Sophie Scholl.”

The Arrows’ next production after The White Rose sees a return to classic literature, as they turn their attention to a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula is again a new piece written in-house, which is going to be at the Brockley Jack just in time for Halloween,” says Ross. “Whilst having the focus of being an utterly terrifying experience, we’re also going to simultaneously tell the story of Bram Stoker, and his tumultuous relationship with infamous actor, arguably the most famous of his generation, Henry Irving. As the writer and director of the show, I’m currently in the research stages for the piece, and I cannot wait for it – we’re certainly ending the year with a bang, and have something truly spectacular planned for the new year, which I can’t talk about just yet. 

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention Artistic Director Kate Bannister, and Producer Karl Swinyard, at the Brockley Jack, who have supported our work for the last three years, and given us a home in which to cultivate our creative direction and find the work we wanted to make. You cannot hope to meet a more generous and caring theatre management team than Kate and Karl – they’re the best of the best, always on your side, and always open to taking new work. Kate fell in love with Sophie’s story from Day One, as she passionately cares about telling female-led stories, and supporting new writing, and it’s been such an honour to work with them on a great season so far.”

The White Rose runs from 17th July to 4th August at the Brockley Jack Studio.

Review: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.

After the Ball is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 24th March.


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Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

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Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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